More evidence strongly supports the certainty that barefoot running does a significantly better job at reducing a number of risk factors that cause injury. For instance, it turns out to be very much confirmed that barefoot running encourages a safer, more optimal interaction of the foot with the ground in the form a forefoot strike, which is significantly less impact-intensive and more physical stable than heel striking.
Even better, running barefoot has proved effective in improving load balance, which is the distribution of workloads across an area. Evidence has emerged that barefoot running helps you avoid damaging load imbalances by naturally improving ankle-joint stability and your sense of forces acting on the ankle-joint.
The problem with load imbalances when running is it leads to uneven stress and thus more stressed aspects across the body, like the shins, knees, hips and lower back. Conventional running shoes that are narrow, stiff and thickly cushioned are blame-worthy for this because the sensory feedback from the ground is gone, therefore the odds of everything coming down perfectly is gone, too! In consequence, the body has to try harder to correct itself, resulting in conflicting internal and external rotation forces, thereby continuously rendering you to injury.
All this heightened awareness stems from the heightened multi-sensory inputs acting on the underfoot which activates a range of neuromuscular and reflexive responses that engage faster and stronger mobility restrains at the ankle. This was found to be a major contributor to optimal load balancing.
For instance, published studies by Dr. Steven Robbins, MD, found that optimal load balancing was strongly associated with increases in ankle stability which was strongly influenced by underfoot tactile sensory feedback, all of which was found to be most optimized when barefoot vs thickly cushioned running shoes.
His work also found that you’re all the more likely to have balance impairments with increased underfoot cushioning because underfoot tactile sensory feedback is greatly diminished. This impairs proprioception (joint and limb position sense) which impairs foot position and postural precision and awareness of foot strike intensity (how hard your foot hits the pavement).
Of significance, according to more ground-breaking work by Dr. Steven Robins, the more you wear thickly cushioned shoes, the more there’s a gradual decline or degeneration of the plantar proprioceptors (underfoot sensory receptors). This leads to load imbalances and abnormal redistribution of heavy impact pressures across the foot and leg while running. In other words, thickly cushioned running shoes is primarily responsible for the loss of function of the plantar sensory nerves because these shoes significantly reduce underfoot stimuli thresholds, causing a number of plantar sensory nerves to be under-stimulated = If you don’t use them, you lose them!
The Take Home Message
A summery of Dr. Steven Robbins work on barefoot vs shod conditions:
- the degree of underfoot stimulation affects the degree to which the plantar sensory receptors are active. Being barefoot directly stimulates all plantar sensory receptors which has the most positive effects on improving ankle instability than thick cushioned running shoes.
- load balancing and impact-moderating behaviour were optimized under barefoot conditions vs thickly shod conditions, suggesting that the improved sensory nerve feedback at the plantar surface makes barefoot runners better at avoiding high impact, unsteady landings
- poorly stimulated plantar proprioceptors was largely to blame for impaired footstep stability in thickly cushioned running shoes. In this condition, the knee had to work harder hold the ankle-joint more steady.
- bottom line, when plantar sensory input is cut off , footstep stability suffers and load imbalance is amplified
This is all the more reason why that if you’re a shod runner, barefoot running needs to be in your training to ensure the reflexive and neuromuscular controls for safer, functional and efficient running stay hardwired in your muscle memory for when you do race in shoes.
Dyck, P. J., Classen, S. M., and Stevens, J. C.,Assessment of nerve damage in the fed of long-distance runners. Mayo Clin. Pruc.,62, 568-572, 1987.
Robbins, S. E. and Waked. E. G., Humans amplify impact to compensate for instability caused by shoe sole materials, Arch. Phys. Mea. Rehabil., 78; 46l-467, 1997.
Robbins SE and Waked E. Foot position awareness: the effect of footwear on instability, excessive impact, and ankle spraining. Clin Reviews in Phys Rehab Med, 1997;9(1):53-74.
If you’ve enjoyed this content, you’ll LOVE my content over at my YouTube channel, here, where I go into greater detail about the health and performance benefits of barefoot running. I also talk about the research on heel strike vs forefoot strike running!
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BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.